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“They’re better. We’re better too.” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes ahead of Purdue Elite Eight battle

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Josiah-Jordan James has not had a good season for Tennessee.

The fifth-year senior has had scoreless games, 3-point shooting droughts and defensive lapses.

But in the Vols’ biggest game of the season, James came up big, scoring 15 points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out two assists as Tennessee corralled Creighton in a Sweet 16 game, 82-75.

James’ performance sparked Tennessee to its second-ever Elite Eight appearance, joining the 2010 team. It also helped UT win its second Sweet 16 game in 10 tries (the Vols lost to Dayton in 1967 when the first game was in the Sweet 16) and improve to 2-9 against top three seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” James said. “We’ve put in so much work. … This is the best group I’ve ever been around, just to have this moment with these guys making history.

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“We’re not done yet. We know that. But we’re so happy to be one step closer to our end goal.”

Tennessee (27-8) is one step closer mainly because James stepped up in the absence of his fellow fifth-year senior, Santiago Vescovi, who didn’t play due to illness.

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Tennessee has had two dependable players for most of this season: SEC Player of the Year Dalton Knecht and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Zakai Ziegler. Both were outstanding against Creighton.

Knecht scored a game-high 26 points, making 3-of-7 from distance. He added six rebounds, five assists and two steals. And he made four clutch free throws in the final 50 seconds.

Ziegler had 18 points, six assists and four rebounds with just one turnover. He was 3-for-6 from 3 and was pesky all night on defense.

While Knecht and Ziegler combined for 44 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, they needed offensive help from a third party. It wasn’t Jonas Aidoo, who struggled through a 2-for-8 shooting night. Or Jahmai Mashack, who scored four points in relief of Vescovi.

It was James, who got his 15 points on six field-goal attempts..

James hit two 3s in the opening minutes to loosen up the Blue Jays’ defense and give the team a confidence boost from outside after the Vols were 3-for-25 on 3s against Texas. (UT shot a sizzling 11-of-24 on 3s against Creighton.).  

James hit another 3 in the second half during UT’s decisive 18-0 run as he went 3-for-5 from long range. He calmly nailed two free throws with 1:12 left to provide a 73-64 cushion then hit two more foul shots with 30.6 seconds left.

That 18-0 run gave the Vols a 55-39 lead.

“We kept telling ourselves to be relentless,” Ziegler said.

James was relentless. And when James plays at a high level, Tennessee is hard to beat. Just ask Creighton. Or Kentucky, where James scored 26 points in an earlier win at Rupp Arena.

But when James disappears on offense, like he did on a scoreless night in the SEC Tournament against Mississippi State, the Vols have a tough time winning.

Next up for the Vols is a rematch of a November defeat to Purdue, one of two No. 1 seeds to make the Elite Eight. Tipoff is 2:20 pm Sunday.

“They’re better,” Barnes said of Purdue. “We’re better too.”

How much better remains to be seen.

For months, Ziegler was still favoring surgery from a torn ACL which ended his sophomore season in March. Ziegler is a much better player now than he was in that 71-67 loss to the Boilermakers.

You can expect a much-improved Ziegler against Purdue.

A bigger key is how James plays. If he can do to Purdue what he did to Creighton, the Vols have a great shot at making the program’s first-ever Final Four.

NOTES: UT is 4-1 against teams in the Elite Eight. UT lost to Purdue, beat Alabama twice and defeated North Carolina State. … The Vols are 2-9 against top 3 seeds in the NCAA tourney. … UT is one of five current SEC teams to never make a Final Four. The others: Alabama, Ole Miss, Missouri and Vanderbilt. … UT has won 27 games for only the fifth time in school history and the third time under Barnes. … Barnes is making his fourth Elite Eight appearance, the first three when he coached Texas.

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